What Do Professors Think of MOOCs?

Tepid. Even disapproving. That’s the state of many professors’ attitudes towards MOOCs, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s 2013 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, released on the IHE website on Tuesday.

That reaction isn’t surprising, given fears that MOOCs will wipe out hordes of academic jobs. Plus, I’d like to think, professors who’ve spent their careers teaching students have gleaned valuable experience indicating the importance of certain methods–such as class discussion–that are much more difficult online.

Indeed, lack of interaction topped the list as the most popular professorial criticism of online education. The survey, which Gallup conducted for IHE by contacting 21,277 professors and technology administrators (2,251 of whom responded), tracked opinions on various educational uses of technology. Some questions were directed only to faculty. When asked to compare the quality of professor/student interaction in online classes (including MOOCs) with such interaction in most in-person classes, an overwhelming 85% of all faculty members answered that the quality online was worse. Among the subgroup of professors who had actually taught an online course, the percentage of skeptics was lower (71%) but still high. In other features, such as grading and content delivery, professors thought the performances might be similar, but overall professors remained skeptical of online courses.

MOOCs, despite their media hype, elicited even higher levels of concern. A majority of professors (54%) believed that even MOOCs offered by elite institutions provide lesser quality than other forms of online education (versus 19% who thought elite-school MOOCs might be better, and 27% who took the middle ground).

Part of professors’ dislike is their fear of competing against massive technologically-based teaching rivals. Sixty-two percent of faculty believe that if schools want to offer MOOCs, they ought to first secure their faculties’ permission, a practice that, if instituted, would drastically reduce the number of MOOCs offered. And 59% believe MOOCs should be evaluated by an accrediting agency–not because they believe MOOCs worthy of credit (only 22% thought credit should be granted for MOOC completion) but more likely because accreditation, at least for now, poses a protective barrier between professors and the credit-bearing MOOC. Given that nearly half (47%) believe colleges should offer MOOCs only if they’d be willing to grant credit for them, and only a handful of colleges have agreed to do so, a good number of faculty members probably wouldn’t mind if MOOCs died down as rapidly as they arose.

If MOOCs are to remain, though, professors are adamant that they are not for everyone: 62% disagreed/strongly disagreed that MOOCs can serve students of all levels, while a mere 19% agreed or strongly agreed. An earlier question on all online education found that professors mostly feared (78%) for “at-risk” students who took online courses. Yet most of the schools that have begun to offer credit for MOOCs have focused on remedial education and/or nontraditional students–many of whom probably count as “at-risk.”

MOOC development is largely driven by start-ups and by MOOC-eager administrators playing  an academic version of keeping up with the Joneses. Faculty disapproval isn’t likely to change that. Still, it’s good to know that not all higher ed is rushing pell-mell into the MOOC experiment.

Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.

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